Alternative SPOTY 


Philosophy Football Mark Perryman's Sports Politics of the Year selection


There's not a lot I nowadays agree with Julie Burchill on. Her, and partner in late 1970s punk verbal vitriol Tony Parsons', decline and fall to reactionary bugbears is deservedly notorious. However when Julie in her customary barbed style declared ' Sport. Personality. Now there's an interesting idea.' Well I had to laugh, and agree. 

Wednesday night's prime time slot for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year is, and always has been, a platform for the celebritification of sport. To entrench the entirely false division between sport and the social, the cultural, the political that frames it. To deny the existence of a sporing economy that is a key factor in success, and failure.  To ignore how all sports are socially constructed. OK p'raps its not Gary Lineker and Clare Balding's job to tackle any of this on Wednesday but the enduring resistance to doing so by too much of the sporting establishment, including most of the sports media, elevates sport as almost entirely lacking context. Or as CLR James in his 1963 book Beyond a Boundary famously put it :

 "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know."  

An idea further developed by Garry Whannel, who's 1983 book Blowing the Whistle : The Politics of Sport sought to establish a socio-cultural understanding of the games we watch, and play :

“Sport is marked down as a natural, taken-for-granted activity. You don’t need to talk or write about it. You just do it.” 

It was Garry's book that more than any influence started me thinking about the sport I just 'did', at the time road running, and within a year I'd had my first piece published, on the London Marathon as a participatory-spectacle, in the magazine Marxism Today

So almost 60 years on from Beyond a Boundary, almost 40 years on from Blowing The Whistle  how about if we rearrange S-P-O-T-Y to spell ' Sports Politics of the Year' and think about what 2022 might look like thru' such a lens? 

I'd start with the Women's Euros, and not just 'cos England won it, well, actually yes, beating Germany to boot! There's nothing that boosts sport like domestic success. In England women's football case via two particular dimensions., Both of which deserve to be neither overestimated nor underestimated. 

First, a very different way for fans to parade our Englishness, free of, as the rather well-worn phrase puts it, 'toxic masculinity'. As someone who has followed England to four World Cups  I'd argue that this 'soft Englishness' has always existed and been majoritarian in England fan culture but when a coked up lad stuffs a flaming flare up his arse the afternoon England men are in a Euros final the media framing would convince most we're all like that. The absence of such enabled England women's fans to establish a different framing, but a gut patriotism lacking such softening still exists, it won't be entirely reversed by England women winning the Euros alone. This is a version of Englishness embedded in a martial, imperial tradition mixed up with a 'fuck-you' anti- social behaviour strand, all of which 'toxic masculinity' alone isn't enough to account for. 

Second, the impact on women's participation playing football. Attendance levels for England women, the October game versus USA at Wembley sold out, the April game versus Brazil will likely do the same. The top Women's clubs, Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd, Arsenal can fill Stamford Bridge, the Etihad and Emirates, Old Trafford with tens of thousands of fans.  Good, but this is spectating, not sport. The key to a healthier society, in every sense of the word is doing sport not just watching it. Elite success boosts the latter, it has next to no lasting effect on the former. Transforming school sport to enable all girls (and boys) to play football from the earliest possible age is key, with crucially such opportunities to be vastly expanded for post-school years, don't bet your house on any of this happening on the scale required.  

Next up the men's Football World Cup in Qatar. A groundbreaking recognition that 'sport isn't political' is oxymronic?  No, not quite. The approach of the Guardian, liberal opinion and the wider sports media more widely, was frankly embarrassing.  The Guardian declared this was ' a World Cup like no other' an entirely ahistorical approach ignoring the host of the 1934 tournament, one Benito Mussolini, the brutal Argentinian Dictatorship hosting 1978 or Vladimir Putin in 2018 just fouy years after his invarion of Ukraine's Crimea region, and that's just for starters.  Once the games kicked off the Guardian's grandly titled coverage 'Qatar: Beyond the Football'  became a mere footnote to the match reports, as it was always destined to be. Meanwhile the England team's protest amounted to wearing an armband, until it was decided in the face of FIFA opposition even this was too much.  Far more significant than any of this damp squibness was the widespread popularisation of the Palestine flag, and cause by fans, in particular Morroco's, and players too on this the biggest global sporting stage of all. Perhaps now European FAs, commentators, pundits and football journalists might question why the Israeli team competed in the European World Cup and Euro's qualifying groups their clubs compete in UEFA European competitions, but Palestine where they belong in the Asian confederation contests. Because Israel was expelled due to their militarised mistreatment of Palestinians. Will the aforementioned ever mention this salient fact? I'm not holding my breath.    

Across October to December uniquely England were competing in four World Cups. Men's football World Cup England exited at the Quarter Final stage, statistically top eight is our ranking in this tournament. The men's rugby league, semi-final, exit. The England Women's Rugby team came oh so close to lifting their World Cup trophy but ended up losing finalists. Only the men's T20 triumphed to be crowned World Cup winners. Those of us who share the Jamesian philosophy however would ask, apart from football, are any of these others truly World Cups?  Sure, aping football they have the title but the contenders are absolutely restricted to ex British Empire states with assorted hangers-on not much more than making up the numbers for the group stages. Two factors account for this. One, football was spread worldwide by trade, unlike cricket and rugby by empire. Two, football requires next to no facilities, simple rules, all body shapes can excel, and there's a global path to a professional career. Or in other words, all sports are socially constructed. 

Ireland's test series triumph over the All Blacks absolutely deserves to be ranked as one of the greatest team sport achievements of all time, never mind 2022. But Irish rugby is a bt of a curiosity. Unlike football and the Olympics, a United Ireland team. The all-Ireland Irish Rugby Football Union predates 1916 and depite partition was never dissolved, This most English, and most certainly not Gaelic, of sports with its heartlands in Leinster and Munster never cast out, nor those who stick with the Union and in every other regard rejecting any notion of a United Ireland. And just like the football with Jack Charlton, the team's greatest success under an English manager, Andy Farrell. Given the centrality of Republicanism vs Unionism to politics north of the border, and a resurgent Sinn Fein south of tthe border while it doesn't do to overstate the significance of a team that unites both sides, but nor does it help to almost entirely ignore this most unexpected symbol of what a united Ireland could look like, not give it a mention, either.  

So there we have it, a first stab at an alternative SPOTY. Not to ruin our enjoyment of sport, watching or doing, but to enjoy, enrich and empower. I'm sure Beth Mead, Messi or Mbappé, Ben Stokes, Andy Farrell will enjoy the 'other' SPOTY night out and if they win them, their gongs entirely deserved.  But sport, and politics, is all the poorer when it is treated as anything but each indivisible from the other.  

Further Reading 

CLR James Beyond a Boundary 

Garry Whannel Original 1983 edition Blowing the Whistle : The Politics of Sport  Updated edition Culture, Politics and Sport : Blowing the Whistle Revisited 


  Philosophy Football's 'Alternative SPOTY' T-shirt selection is available here 



Mark Perryman is a Research Fellow in Sport and Leisure Culture at the University of Brighton and co-founder of Philosophy Football